Nolan & Co. delivering on promise so far

Mike Nolan is rebuilding the 49ers just like he said he would – from the trenches up. The team's new coach knows that NFL games are won and lost up front, and he shrewdly has brought in established reinforcements at the game's two most important line positions instead of relying on the unpredictability of the draft to fill those gaps in the San Francisco roster. If this is the plan as Nolan & Co. have laid it out before us the past three months, even naysayers have to admit it's working so far.

The real proof for many, of course, will come with what Nolan and the new 49ers regime can do with their 11 precious draft picks in April. And, let's be honest, the new leader of the team still has a ways to go to make true believers out of followers of the Niners.

But Nolan has delivered one big promise so far – to put focus on upgrading the team's size and talent along the offensive and defensive line. Nobody can argue he hasn't done that with the free-agent signings of Jonas Jennings and Marques Douglas.

The Jennings signing was unexpected in its swiftness, coming on the second day of the free-agency period when Jennings easily could have shopped around for a better team, if not a better contract.

The Douglas contract, finalized Thursday morning, was unexpected in that it happened at all.

When Nolan was hired in January away from the Baltimore Ravens, taking with him from Baltimore a rising coaching star in Mike Singletary, Nolan made a promise to Baltimore coach Brian Billick not to raid the Ravens of their talent on the field or in their coaching staff.

But when Douglas still was out there on the open market almost five weeks after free agency began – a development Nolan and others weren't expecting – Nolan just had to make an exception, if only because it was the best thing for the 49ers.

"I knew that he was getting play as soon as the season was over, and I'm not one that likes to pluck players off my old squad," Nolan said. "But in this case, I thought here is a guy that is our kind of guy and has every kind of feature that I'm looking for in a player on and off the field, and his impact on young guys … (This) was a great opportunity for us to add a very solid player who would upgrade our football team in just about every way that we're looking to upgrade the team. I felt that I needed to make an exception to the rule and say we're going to get him here."

Mission accomplished and – like Jennings before him – the addition of Douglas to the team's talent-challenged roster should not be minimized or underestimated.

Playing the 3-4 defense – which the Niners will do in 2005 – can be a very tricky thing. It's success is dependent on a particular breed of defensive end that is big enough to play the run like tackles but also swift, agile and powerful enough to be effective pass rushers on passing downs.

You just don't find those guys anywhere. If you looked real hard at the 49ers roster before Thursday, you might have found only one or two guys who fit the role by size and only one – Bryant Young – who could be expected to produce in it immediately.

The addition of Douglas – a productive and effective, if not formidable, end in this scheme – is that big. It gives Nolan a key cog in his line rotation that he can be comfortable with as he transforms the San Francisco defense.

The same is true of Jennings, of course – a move that will have a trickle-down effect that could significantly upgrade the offensive line this year. Everything on offense will work better now that Jennings is protecting the quarterback's blind side. And moving Kwame Harris to right tackle should allow him to prosper at his natural position. Contrary to what he might say, Harris never was comfortable at left tackle and is more than happy to make the switch back to the right side.

It may have gone unnoticed to some, but Nolan already has named Justin Smiley the starter at left guard – where his speed and aggressiveness can be put to maximum use – and switched former starting left guard Eric Heitmann to the right side, where his straightforward blocking skills also can be put to better use.

And just the fact Jennings and Douglas – both highly-desired items in free agency this year – would travel far to join Nolan's reclamation project in San Francisco also says something.

Like Jennings before him, Douglas spoke with almost reverence regarding his new coach. With Jennings, it sounded like it might be the big money talking. But with Douglas, who played for Nolan the past three years in Baltimore, the words sounded genuine.

"This is an organization that has made some great strides to make sure they're never going to have another season like they had last year," said Douglas, who left one of the NFL's best organizations to come west.

Reading between that line, Douglas was talking specifically about Nolan.

"Once you have Mike Nolan and give him a little time to let him have his fill on things, the possibilities are endless," Douglas said. "He was an integral part of what we did in Baltimore. I love the direction we're going. We're taking a defense that was successful in Baltimore and bringing it to the West Coast. The offenses in the NFC are going to experience the defense we're going to have here."

So far, the 49ers are experiencing Nolan living up to the promise he both displayed and portrayed when he was hired.

There are several ways the team could have gone this spring with its free-agent dollars, but getting two significant "building blocks" – words used by both Jennings and Douglas when they signed with the team – was the best way to use them.

Now the team can concentrate on playmakers and game-breaking talent in the draft, the kind of players that can make the quickest impact on the team. That wasn't going to happen at offensive tackle or defensive end, positions at which it notoriously takes years to develop players into quality – or even adequate – performers.

Now it doesn't need to. As Nolan's grand plan slowly comes into focus, it keeps looking better all the time.


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